Friday, August 26, 2011

The Tao of Description

The Chinese philosophical classic, The Tao Te Ching, opens with this observation:

The Tao that can be described is not the true Tao.

The Tao Te Ching describes the nature of the infinite; it describes the vibe of the source of all things. Laozi, the author of this text, starts his work by telling the reader that the upcoming descriptions of the Tao are not the Tao itself. He’s implying that the reason we humans don’t get the Tao is that we let our need for descriptions, our labels, and our language, get in the way of reality.

Laozi realised that his desire to transmit knowledge of the Tao was fundamentally flawed: he had to use language to describe what could only be diminished by description. But that realisation didn’t stop him from trying. I suspect Laozi understood that words, while imperfect, can open a reader’s eyes to the world around her, and to the world inside her.

Words may not be the destination, but they can point you in the right direction, and they can give you an idea of what you will see when you get there.

The writer of prose knows that words are imperfect. He knows that his ability to communicate an idea or feeling is limited by his knowledge of words and how they work together. But, like Laozi, the writer believes in the power of the human mind, its ability to transmute words into magic, to find the infinite through the finite.

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